Author Topic: The Ethics of Gossiping  (Read 765 times)

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Offline nameofthewave

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The Ethics of Gossiping
« on: August 12, 2017, 04:14:54 AM »
I'll define 'gossiping' here as: "talking about an individual behind their back, about things that you would not feel comfortable saying to their face".

I have always struggled with this one. On the one hand, I try my very best NOT to say things about people that I would not say to them directly, but... well, sometimes it just happens. It just seems like a kind of social currency that a lot of otherwise nice people seem to happily engage in (I know some people who do little else but gossip). As far as I can tell, more or less everyone does this to SOME extent. And if you are present while other people are gossiping about someone else, even if you don't join in, are you then complicit if you withhold that from the person being gossiped about? I realise that it does depend a lot on what is being talked about, and whether that is itself true, or malicious, or spreading unsubstantiated rumours.

I was wondering what fellow skeptics think of this one. Do you engage in gossip? Are you extra careful to check the reliablity of information about other people you share with others? Do you feel uncomfortable talking behind peoples' backs? I'm guessing that, as far as personal values go, 'honesty' probably ranks fairly highly amongst us, so is gossiping considered a form of dishonesty? Or should it be considered a form of social glue that you just can't be too skeptical about?


Offline aleks335

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #1 on: August 12, 2017, 07:59:30 AM »
As long as it does not turn into slander, you don't pass judgement, and still treat the person with the respect and dignity you do others I see no harm in a little gossiping.
“I quite realized,” said Columbus
“That the earth was not a rhombus,
But I am a little annoyed
To find it an oblate spheroid.”

Offline arthwollipot

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #2 on: August 12, 2017, 08:34:28 AM »
Turns out I have been engaging in a little gossip tonight. A person in an organisation I am part of has been behaving inappropriately at events, and those of us who are in authority in this organisation have been discussing how we should deal with it.

Offline nameofthewave

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #3 on: August 12, 2017, 08:43:42 AM »
Turns out I have been engaging in a little gossip tonight. A person in an organisation I am part of has been behaving inappropriately at events, and those of us who are in authority in this organisation have been discussing how we should deal with it.

Ok, point taken. Clearly my definition above was inadequate, maybe I should add "except when done in a professional context and/or motivated through a desire for self protection or personal protection of others in the absence of other protections". I'm not saying that is the definition of gossip, just that is what I was talking about when I used the word.

Offline arthwollipot

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #4 on: August 12, 2017, 08:37:33 PM »
Turns out I have been engaging in a little gossip tonight. A person in an organisation I am part of has been behaving inappropriately at events, and those of us who are in authority in this organisation have been discussing how we should deal with it.

Ok, point taken. Clearly my definition above was inadequate, maybe I should add "except when done in a professional context and/or motivated through a desire for self protection or personal protection of others in the absence of other protections". I'm not saying that is the definition of gossip, just that is what I was talking about when I used the word.
But you see, this is the problem. There is really no good or effective definition of the word that might satisfy everyone.

A comparison that I've seen made is that when women do it, it is gossiping. When men do it, it is water-cooler talk. The best definition you can get is that when you're talking about someone without their knowledge, and I think it's bad, then it's gossiping. If I tell Person A that I think Person B is a great friend who will go out of their way to help me, that's not gossiping. It's only gossiping when it's something that I think is bad.

If Person B found out that I had just told Person A what a great person they are, Person B might legitimately think that Person A will now expect them to go out of their way to help them, and they might take a dim view of that. Hence, that is now retroactively defined as gossiping.

If I complain to my supervisor about Person A's inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, that isn't gossping. If I tell my friend about Person A's inappropriate behaviour at the pub, that's gossiping, unless I feel like my friend might be on the receiving end of Person A's inappropriate behaviour in the future, in which case it isn't.

So, like most situations, the ethics of gossiping isn't about gossip. It's about behaviour, and whether it is appropriate to talk about someone in their absence. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. We define gossip as those times where it isn't.

Offline aleks335

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #5 on: August 12, 2017, 09:16:30 PM »
My great grandmother, allegedly, used to say that "it is better that they gossip about you than not talk about you at all".
I fairness to her, it sounds much better in a Norwegian thick farm country dialect.
“I quite realized,” said Columbus
“That the earth was not a rhombus,
But I am a little annoyed
To find it an oblate spheroid.”

Offline arthwollipot

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #6 on: August 12, 2017, 09:25:53 PM »
It was, I believe, Oscar Wilde who said "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

Offline aleks335

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #7 on: August 12, 2017, 09:36:29 PM »
See! Great alleged alcoholics do think alike.
“I quite realized,” said Columbus
“That the earth was not a rhombus,
But I am a little annoyed
To find it an oblate spheroid.”

Offline nameofthewave

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #8 on: August 13, 2017, 03:21:04 PM »
Turns out I have been engaging in a little gossip tonight. A person in an organisation I am part of has been behaving inappropriately at events, and those of us who are in authority in this organisation have been discussing how we should deal with it.

Ok, point taken. Clearly my definition above was inadequate, maybe I should add "except when done in a professional context and/or motivated through a desire for self protection or personal protection of others in the absence of other protections". I'm not saying that is the definition of gossip, just that is what I was talking about when I used the word.
But you see, this is the problem. There is really no good or effective definition of the word that might satisfy everyone.

A comparison that I've seen made is that when women do it, it is gossiping. When men do it, it is water-cooler talk. The best definition you can get is that when you're talking about someone without their knowledge, and I think it's bad, then it's gossiping. If I tell Person A that I think Person B is a great friend who will go out of their way to help me, that's not gossiping. It's only gossiping when it's something that I think is bad.

If Person B found out that I had just told Person A what a great person they are, Person B might legitimately think that Person A will now expect them to go out of their way to help them, and they might take a dim view of that. Hence, that is now retroactively defined as gossiping.

If I complain to my supervisor about Person A's inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, that isn't gossping. If I tell my friend about Person A's inappropriate behaviour at the pub, that's gossiping, unless I feel like my friend might be on the receiving end of Person A's inappropriate behaviour in the future, in which case it isn't.

So, like most situations, the ethics of gossiping isn't about gossip. It's about behaviour, and whether it is appropriate to talk about someone in their absence. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. We define gossip as those times where it isn't.

I get that this is very nuanced. Maybe to make it a bit more specific, have you ever taken part in a casual conversation where you discussed someone (that was not in a professional context or with the aim of protecting others) and then subsequently bumped into that person and felt a little guilty about what you said? How did you square this off? This is specifically what I am thinking about. It seems like my general rule about not saying things about people behind their back that I wouldn't feel comfortable saying to their face, is inadequate somehow and I am trying to work that out. Or maybe this is cowardice on my part (not being up front with people) in which case I would like to work on that, personally. But I was curious about what other people thought about it. Maybe one answer is, "well its a part of being human, there's a big grey area but as long as you don't go overboard then a bit of backbiting is inevitable, probably you have to within a group of people to maintain your own position because everyone else is doing it to you as well".

My great grandmother, allegedly, used to say that "it is better that they gossip about you than not talk about you at all".
I fairness to her, it sounds much better in a Norwegian thick farm country dialect.

I think we are gossiping about your great grandmother, I feel guilty about that now.

As long as it does not turn into slander, you don't pass judgement, and still treat the person with the respect and dignity you do others I see no harm in a little gossiping.

This is tricky. Is it then still "gossip"? We then get back to what are we talking about. If I did not break any of those 'rules' then I think I would feel comfortable saying whatever it was to the person's face.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2017, 03:30:47 PM by nameofthewave »

Offline SnarlPatrick

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #9 on: September 06, 2017, 11:41:45 PM »
I have told people "Don't not tell me that. I've no right to know and you've no right to tell me." It can't help but be a little awkward. I've listened to gossip rarely and a handful of times I've passed it along. I would probably gossip more if I were more extroverted, but it has felt awful and wrong each time. When someone reveals the confidence of a third party, they are revealing that they are not trustworthy with your confidences.

Nobody makes a big deal out of it because the contents are often minutia, people like being apprised on the going's on of people around them... they like the attention of sharing it... they like the affirmation of being taken into "confidence"... They like that they know things others don't... it's a character flaw, and an addiction, like the small lies that Harris describes. 

As always, there are exceptions.... for the person's own well-being... out of concern for them... if there is a legitimate conflict of interest... and there are also special people... trusted partners... who are told things others are not....but in general, I think in the pursuit of one's own integrity, one should move to cut gossip out of one's life.
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Online daniel1948

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #10 on: September 07, 2017, 08:55:15 AM »
I've always thought of gossip as simply talking about people who are not part of the conversation. The kind of thing the OP is talking about, I'd qualify as malicious gossip. I've lived far from the rest of my family for most of my life, so whenever I spoke with a family member, I'd ask about other family members. This was gossip by my definition, but not malicious. So-and-so got a new job; so-and-so had a baby; so-and-so is sick, or was sick and is better. I enjoyed hearing about relatives I might only see once every few years or not at all. This is definitely gossip, to my mind, but I don't think anybody would see anything wrong with it.

Malicious gossip is another matter, and we'd probably be a better society if people didn't do it. But people are petty and vindictive for the most part, and there are far worse things they do than gossip.
Daniel
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Offline nameofthewave

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #11 on: September 10, 2017, 04:01:19 AM »
I have told people "Don't not tell me that. I've no right to know and you've no right to tell me." It can't help but be a little awkward. I've listened to gossip rarely and a handful of times I've passed it along. I would probably gossip more if I were more extroverted, but it has felt awful and wrong each time. When someone reveals the confidence of a third party, they are revealing that they are not trustworthy with your confidences.

Nobody makes a big deal out of it because the contents are often minutia, people like being apprised on the going's on of people around them... they like the attention of sharing it... they like the affirmation of being taken into "confidence"... They like that they know things others don't... it's a character flaw, and an addiction, like the small lies that Harris describes. 

As always, there are exceptions.... for the person's own well-being... out of concern for them... if there is a legitimate conflict of interest... and there are also special people... trusted partners... who are told things others are not....but in general, I think in the pursuit of one's own integrity, one should move to cut gossip out of one's life.

Yeah, I can relate to the introvert thing. Its good that you're able to tell people that you don't want to hear malicious gossip about other people, I wish I had the moral strength to do that, maybe its just something I need to work on. This is the thing though, the underlying feeling I have about it is that if you take the high ground in these situations are you missing out, in relation to the social circle you are in? I mean, if everyone else is doing it (or even talking about you) to maintain their social standing, are you missing out by taking the high ground? Like you said their are a complex set of things associated with it.. being taken into confidence, building a rapport, I mean I've even been in groups at work where we have bonded quite closely because of a boss that everyone hated, which if you think about it is screwed up (liking some people more because you all hate the same person).

I've always thought of gossip as simply talking about people who are not part of the conversation. The kind of thing the OP is talking about, I'd qualify as malicious gossip. I've lived far from the rest of my family for most of my life, so whenever I spoke with a family member, I'd ask about other family members. This was gossip by my definition, but not malicious. So-and-so got a new job; so-and-so had a baby; so-and-so is sick, or was sick and is better. I enjoyed hearing about relatives I might only see once every few years or not at all. This is definitely gossip, to my mind, but I don't think anybody would see anything wrong with it.

Malicious gossip is another matter, and we'd probably be a better society if people didn't do it. But people are petty and vindictive for the most part, and there are far worse things they do than gossip.

Yes, I probably mean 'malicious' gossip (here's the problem of defining terms again). I think what you are talking about is harmless, I mean you wouldn't feel uncomfortable if the person you were talking about knew that you were talking about them as it is just passing on information.

I suppose what I am getting at, in a clumsy way, is that sometimes the strict application of moral rules that are derived through some kind of rational, reasoned approach aren't always easily applied in real life, because the fact that we are human gets in the way. Should we allow for the fact that 'we are human' when deciding these moral rules for ourselves? In the case of gossip - is the fact that we are social animals with a very strong innate drive to maintain and improve our social status, something we should take into account when attempting to adopt a moral rule like "don't spread malicious gossip about other people"? 

Online daniel1948

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Re: The Ethics of Gossiping
« Reply #12 on: September 10, 2017, 08:44:58 AM »
There are seldom any easy answers when it comes to morality rules, unless you adopt the religious view that you have a direct line to God and you know what God wants. For the rest of us, it's all pretty messy. The infamous trolley dilemmas are a good example.

As another example, you and I might agree that it's wrong to break into people's houses and take their stuff. But someone else might argue that it's justified because the economic system you and I are a part of, and therefore complicit in, denies him the opportunity to have a job that pays a living wage, and he's justified in taking our stuff in order to feed his hungry kids.

When is gossip malicious, and when is it your social responsibility to warn your neighbors about the anti-social behavior of another neighbor? Real life is too complicated for easy rules.
Daniel
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